Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Skype learning – 7 great benefits

You can always spot a fabulous technology when it can be used as a verb, like email, text, tweet. I’ll ‘Skype’ you, is one of those wonderful verbs. Over the last two years I’ve been doing voluntary Maths and Science tuition for kids that find these subjects difficult. It’s been a mix of face-to-face and Skype. So what follows is a short comparison between these two techniques.


Skype is one of the wonders of the web, mainly because it’s free. Who would have thought that videoconferencing would cost nothing and that any old Joe from any old computer, and many phones, could do it for free? In these frugal times that’s a gift from the heavens.

Death of distance

Skype is a classic ‘death of distance’ technology. It quite simply frees us from the tyranny of location and cost. Both teacher and student can be literally anywhere. There’s nothing worse for a young person than having to trek round to a tutor’s house in the dark to do some ‘learning’. Booting up Skype is so much quicker and easier.

Increased focus

Skype forces both teacher and student to focus. This may be because you feel that you’re using up valuable online resource, even though it’s free. In any case, there is real sustained attention, which I think is better than a one-to-one face-to-face session. You are far less likely to drift off-task, as either teacher or learner. That means more learning in less time.

True dialogue

The fact that you’re not sitting next to them, and leaning into them, gives them time to breath, think, reflect and respond in their own time. It’s far more measured, with properly paced, dialogue, as the teacher is less likely to talk over the student and more likely to wait until they give a thoughtful response. Dylan William has shown that teachers tend to ask questions then jump in too early when the student fails to respond. I’ve found his 3 second rule (wait 3 secs before saying anything) much easier when online. Both sides take greater care to participate in a structured and constructive dialogue. Of course, you can be even more structured using the message service, which forces you to wait until the other person has responded with a written (and therefore considered) answer.

Prevents peer problems

But it’s the subtler issue of peer distance that really surprised me. Let’s face it, adults and teachers are not the peers of teenagers. We’re the opposite of peers, in the sense that whatever’s cool for us is the opposite of cool for them. I’ve found that being online, brings with it a healthy form of psychological distance that prevents peer problems. It’s more of an adult to adult conversation in the sense that the technology is a leveller. It puts you both on the same psychological plane.

Shared learning resources

When it comes to doing things, like setting a problem, responding with an answer, illustrating a point with a diagram or downloading a past paper or online resource such as BBC Bitesize, you can do so while keeping the Skype channel open. No need to have the video on, just have the new window full screen and the audio dialogue can continue. This is great as you both have your full attention on the content, not the psychological noise you get in face-to-face sessions.


You can record your Skype sessions for free, integrate with outlook, create alerts, use whiteboards, tutoring tools (just click on ‘Conversation’ then ‘Extras)’. There’s literally dozens of tools that allow do anything from customise to the sharing of files and resources.


Some of these virtues are simple and clear; it’s free and frees you from the tyranny of location. Others advantages are more psychological; increased attention, better dialogue and levelling out of peer effects. Lastly, there’s the practical advantages around shared online resources. Bottom line: Skype’s a vastly underused tool that’s made for learning.


Rina said...

Reading your post gives me a feel of how research-oriented your observations are and you always find people who oppose them with similar studies, Mr North. Even when face-to -face interactions have 'noise' or are more pro human we can't deny how completely IT has changed and enhanced learning. Cutting the costs is just the tip of iceberg when we speak of benefits. Am I eligible for trigonometry Skype tuitions Sir Donald ? Thanks for sharing.

Mills said...

Finding similar applications of Skype in corporate learning. And yes everyone gets excited because the application is free. Using beta version 5 and finding improved ease-of-use. Also, very nice group video calling feature which helps to support team collaboration. Surprisingly, IT folks seems to be a bit of an obstacle as they complain of potential bandwidth issues.

Donald Clark said...

5.0 is a great improvement, especially in picking up lost calls. The group video function in 5.0 is also a real breakthrough. Though I haven't tried it. Would love to know if anyone has experience of this yet, as its only Beta.

Peter Leather said...

Thanks for the heads up on Skype.
A couple of questions. 1. When you talk about Skype and "Shared Learning Resources" - is this a Skype feature you are describing? I haven't seen this in use. 2. If you aren't using Skype with video - why is that any better than a phone call / conference call - is it cost only or anything else?

Donald Clark said...

Hi Peter
I was, perhaps, a little unclear on these two issues. 1. I do use video, a lot, as this establishes eye contact and good one-to-one communication when engaged in formative feedback and/or dialogue. I simply pull up past papers and other resources in a window on top of Skype. 2. By 'shared resources', I meant the 'extras'.

The new group feature is interesting but depends a lot on the bandwidth of the participants. Like most teaching it depends on a little lesson planning. In some cases sending some initial problems by email as preparation works well, with Skype as a follow up to discuss problems that arose.

Unknown said...
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Debate Popular - Julio said...

Without doubt a great tool that can be used for different things and adapting very well.

Patricia Daniels said...

Thank you for this list Donald. I've been teaching English as a second language via Skype for several years now, mainly on a one- to- one basis but do give group lessons as well. I'm also surprised that not more use is made of this tool. Why are people still flying or driving for hours to attend meetings? I'd like to add a few benefits to your list.

Flexibility: you've spoken about the elimination of geographical boundaries and I'd like to add that time also becomes flexible. I not only save time but can be more flexible with appointments. I've done everything over the years: students at 5.30 am, lunch hours and way past sunset hours. As Skype is now mobile compatible, place is no longer an issue. If I'm away or my student, I can still give lessons providing a stable connection is at hand. I'm no longer bound by my home office. And if Skype doesn't work then I've found Google Hangout and Facetime to be viable options.

Promotes learner autonomy: as you say, lesson time is valuable and focussed and this seems to be a motivator. Students are willing to come prepared for the lesson so we can really utilize the time effectively and productively.

Improved digital literacies: when using Skype to teach English, I shift with the student/s between a number of virtual rooms to practice reading, writing, listening and speaking skills, for example, Google Drive, Linoit and Realtime Board. They are introduced to these spaces gradually, but with time become very fluent at navigating across various media and platforms. These newly gained skills are a nice side effect and can be put to use elsewhere, such as the workplace.

Creativity: I find that creativity is stimulated when working within this environment. On one hand as a teacher you have to be very spontaneous if some technical issues turns up and be able to dig into your bag of tricks, or you might have to totally rewrite the script in your head. And on the other hand because of the focussed work together where my role often shifts between varying identities, it becomes a creative learning place. Students may come up with an idea and we'll follow it and produce something together or I'll learn something from them, which is always inspirational.

I visualize Skype more like the entrance to a house, in that, I meet and say goodbye to students there, but our creative and productive time together is often spent in all the adjacent rooms.

Thanks for listening. Trish

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Trish. Brilliant supplement to the original post.

Anne said...

One advantage we can name in being an online student is to be able to take notes using your browser :) Read more about it at